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Universities in Hong Kong

‘Study for PhD? What about marriage?’ Women engineers share stories at Hong Kong university diversity workshop

Six top engineering schools in the Asia-Pacific region pledge to hire more female academic staff at conference exploring ways to help women succeed in traditionally male-dominated field

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2018, 9:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2018, 9:00am

“When I first told my previous adviser I was going to pursue a PhD, his first reaction was: ‘What? Don’t you want to get married?’”

According to Stanford electrical engineering student Fiona Wang Ching-hua, this was the response from one prior mentor when she expressed her intention to continue her academic career.

Wang was one of 50 young female scholars from around the world sharing similar stories in Hong Kong this week, when they joined researchers, engineers and other academics in a four-day workshop at the University of Science and Technology.

The event sought to explore ways to help more women succeed in the traditionally male-dominated field of engineering.

Held from Thursday to Sunday, the programme secured a commitment from six top engineering schools in the Asia-Pacific region to try and hire more female academic staff.

“We want to make sure, from recruitment to retention to growth, that women get the best support,” said Professor Tim Cheng Kwang-ting, HKUST’s dean of engineering.

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The workshop was organised by HKUST, the University of Tokyo, National University of Singapore, Seoul National University, National Taiwan University and co-sponsored by the University of New South Wales. Despite its aims, attendees were quick to note that all the deans of the six universities were men.

“There are women getting an education. But in the transition to academia or higher education, numbers decrease,” said Dr Laura Alvarez Frances, who used to study chemistry in Spain. “The career demands a lot of time and investment. At some point, if you want to have a family, you have to quit.”

She said there were more women than men in her class when she was an undergraduate, but now she is the only female in her team in the department of materials at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.

She believed she had never experienced direct discrimination, but said women in research had to be determined and work hard to prove themselves, a sentiment shared by Wang.

“Otherwise people’s emotions and society’s tendencies will just pull you back,” Wang said.

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The latest figures from the University Grants Committee, which advises the Hong Kong government on funding for higher education, show only 18.8 per cent of senior academic staff – defined as professors, readers, principal and senior lecturers – were women at the city’s eight public universities in the 2017-18 academic year.

HKUST was the least diverse institution, with the proportion there just 12.2 per cent. But the university said it was working to turn that figure around. In the past six years women have made up 33 per cent of new hires in its engineering faculty, it said.

Among the department’s 170 permanent staff, just 22 are female. Among 20 teaching staff, seven are women.

Cheng said universities had a responsibility when it came to the gender balance.

“If your university composition does not reflect society, that’s a problem,” he said. “There is no reason any profession should be perceived as more suitable for one gender.”

Lucy Marshall said it was a good time for young women to join the engineering field as many universities were placing greater emphasis on the issue of gender. She was appointed associate dean for equity and diversity in June at the University of New South Wales. It is the first time the institution has had such a position.

“I think the biggest challenge is simply that there aren’t many of us,” Marshall said. “It’s an old saying but it’s true: ‘you cannot be what you cannot see.’ It becomes a circular problem. If there aren’t a lot of women in engineering, there won’t be a lot more attracted to the profession.”

And the solution? Cheng said change needed to begin from a young age.

“Society really needs to encourage more girls to enter science, technology, engineering and maths at the high school and undergraduate levels,” he said. “Once that balance is achieved, the rest will become very natural.”